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On the State of the Comics Industry, and What I'm Excited About at Dynamite

Column by Nick Barrucci

Published: 05/14/2014 02:19am
Nick Barrucci is the CEO of Dynamite Entertainment, and in this column, he shares some additional thoughts on two of the topics we discussed in our recent interview (see "Interview with Nick Barrucci"): the state of the industry, and what he’s excited about at Dynamite Entertainment.

The health of our industry is incredibly strong.  Retailers by and large are doing better, most publishers are doing better, and Diamond's shown numbers that the industry keeps increasing.  Digital is doing incredible numbers.  And this is just from the data we know and is available. 

Retailers are diversifying more and more every day as well.  Diamond's sales of ancillary products have increased from what I've seen, and there are retailers who also buy direct from manufacturers, and we don't see those numbers.  Here's the thing.  There are some people that warn us that we could become like the music business, and pirating will negatively affect us and if we don't diversify enough it will negatively affect the industry.  I think that outlook is wrong.

Our industry has not been and won't be like the music industry.  We're way more than that.  Way more.  Our industry is more like TV and film.  Back when VCRs and video starting hitting in the 80s, there was some concern from studios that consumers would stop going to the movies because they could watch them at home, and were concerned that it would break their model.  That didn't happen.  It actually added to their revenue stream.  TV and movies have evolved, cable grew, and the way that shows and movies are delivered continues to grow.  After VHS there were laser discs (which didn't last long) and then DVDs, and now much is on demand.

So it doesn't matter whether you watch them in the theater, at home, on your laptop, on your phone, wherever/whenever, those industries are still doing well.

That's the comics industry, and here are some brief highlights.  We were a periodicals business for 50 plus years from 1933 through 1986, and then DC really broke the graphic novel medium with the Watchmen, Dark Knight and Shadow TPB Collections and created more revenue for retailers.  And fans could have a collection of their favorite periodicals.  Eventually bookstores started to pay attention, and manga and superhero comics had a new outlet.  You can consider that our VHS/DVD era.  And libraries started carrying more and more graphic novels.  Now bookstores aren't as big, and part of it is because unfortunately Borders went under (sliding DVD sales, so to speak), and digital is becoming a big part of the equation. 

And the best part is that they all complement each other; they are all growing; they actually feed each other.  It's the best of all worlds.  Have we had our ups and downs as an industry?  Yes, of course we have.  Will we have some ups and downs again?  Possibly.  I think that most publishers and retailers are better at their jobs today than we have ever been, and that will help prevent any declines.

Here's the thing.  We don't call our customers consumers much.  We call them fans.  They are vested in the books they buy.  They love it when a character does what they expect from the character, and are vocal when they disapprove; but our fans are vested, and they come back.

There's a passion that retailers have, that fans have, that nearly everyone in our industry has, and that is why we've been growing the last few years.  And it's why we will continue to do so.

This is also why the direct market retailers are our most important partner.  Sales from Barnes & Noble and Amazon are fantastic, and there are some fans who have heard of a series that we have and can't find it or they live far from a local retailer, so they then purchase from those mass market retailers.  But it's the direct market retailers who engage the fans on a one-on-one basis and can hand-sell our books better than anyone else.  Direct Market retailers give fans the experience and interaction that engages them as they come in for their comics.  At the end of the day, even if fans start at Barnes & Noble and Amazon, and they continue to buy graphic novels from those outlets, eventually the majority of them come back to the direct market retailers, and it's a win/win.  And here's the best part.  Even the sales from outlets outside of the direct market allow publishers to reinvest the money to create more compelling comics and allocate more money and resources.  That's another way that our industry wins.

And there's the outreach and media attention.  It's a win when the Hellboy or Sin City movies hit and Dark Horse sells more graphic novels, whether inside or outside of the direct market.  It's a win when the Spider-Man movie hits and Marvel sells more Spider-Man graphic novels, or their licensees like DK sell more books on Spider-Man.  It's a win when The Dark Knight movie hit and DC sold more The Dark Knight and Long Halloween graphic novels.  It's a win when the Transformers movie hit and IDW sells more Transformers comics.  It's a win when The Walking Dead TV show is a hit and sells more Walking Dead comics.  It's a win when the Game of Thrones TV Series hit and we sell more Game of Thrones comics and collections.  All of this is a plus.  All of this helps the health of the industry and allows us to have the ability to grow.  It's up to us to take the bull by the horns. 

I remember when Bill Jemas first joined Marvel and Joe Quesada first became Editor-In-Chief.  One of the first things that they did was to look at all of the custom comics that Marvel was producing, and they thought that Marvel was not putting their best foot forward when it came to custom comics, especially those being given away.  They changed that.  And when they did it, they did it with a vengeance.  They ensured that the best books were the premiums so that the consumers could become fans by getting the best, not the "ok quick buck."  It was Ultimate Spider-Man #1 reprinted if memory serves.  And this allowed them to add dollars to Marvel's bottom line when they were in bankruptcy which had to have some effect in allowing Marvel to create their first major TPB collection for Ultimate Spider-Man.  And this helped usher in the TPB and HC business for Marvel.  I'm spending a bunch here talking about Marvel, but the same can be said about other publishers in the market. 

DC has had some incredible outreach promotions over the years, and the biggest one that I can think of is the "New 52" launch.  They took risk and invested a lot of money to help bring in a new audience, and also lapsed fans who didn't realize that they wanted to come back into the market.  They helped lead us to great growth in the market.  It was phenomenal, and to help really hammer home how much of a risk they took, they committed to all of their promotions far in advance of knowing sales, because they went for mass market attention to help with sell-through.  They told retailers that there would be a lot of attention, and they led the charge for returnable books.  They took a huge risk because the advertising money was committed (and I can't imagine it was cheap), and they made the books returnable.  If they failed, I can't even imagine what would have happened.  But they succeeded, and in spades, and the market had a really, really, really healthy year.  And now they're committing $250,000 to promote Vertigo titles.  That's a lot of money to expose potential fans to a line of creator-driven books.  It's a risk, and I bet that they will have a great reward.

Dark Horse has had fantastic promotions over the years with multiple titles and co-promotions, from including Star Wars comics with Hasbro action figures to working with Gerard Way on Umbrella Academy and exposing comics to his fans.  And let's not forget promotions including working with Bio Ware and promoting Mass Effect comics.  And how many extra fans does Joss Whedon bring in with Buffy and Angel?  I would say that he helps expose comics to an audience we wouldn't otherwise have.

IDW also does a really good job of exposing comics to a larger audience.  Transformers comics with action figures are a great way to get new readers.  They've also taken an idea from other mass publishers such as Dalmation Press and Grab-N-Go Party packs, and turned it in to their very own Micro Packs and are getting exposure for comics.  Good on them to take a practice that other publishers and packagers do outside of the comics market and help it grow the direct market.

Archie has done an exceptional job the last few years bringing attention to comics, whether it's events with Kevin Keller or crossing over with Kiss or Glee.  And this has helped them invest in a great series - one of the best series on the market today:  Afterlife with Archie.  It's is one of my favorite books coming out today, so I have to give it a plug.

And we do our fair share.  Whether it's tying in with some of our more mass titles or whether we're exposing through TV, we do the best job we can. 

There's great variety in all comics published.  And reaching out to new markets, any which way, allows us all to invest more and take more risks.  There are a ton of people in the industry, from the retailers and the publishers, but also all of the employees, editorial, marketing, accounting, all sectors of each publisher, that need to survive.  Very few people are getting really rich in comics.  We do it because we love it.  We do it because we're part of something. 

Think about this.  Publishers can take more risks because they can reinvest money generated from proven sellers.  And we all also reinvest in our existing titles to continue to strive to make better comics. Retailers can take more risks with a new concept because proven concepts make them money to afford the risks.  And fans can take more risks in reading new titles that creators place their heart and soul into because the fans are exposed to their work from other titles.  It's about growth and doing what we all enjoy. 

Comics are cool.  Always have been, always will be.  The passion in the industry will keep us going and growing.

What am I excited about at Dynamite?  There's a lot.  More than I can say right now, but I'll do my best to say as much as possible as I'm really proud of the achievements that everyone at Dynamite - from the team in the office to the creators we work with and the licensing partners we have - have built on.  This isn't just about us, but it's about the work and the fans who support us.  So, let's start with the fact that Dynamite is going to be celebrating our 10th anniversary come July.  Let's go with we published nearly 500 comics and graphic novels in the last year. 

I look back at every step of the way. Our first few titles were titles that no one thought would sell, beginning with Army of Darkness--a movie that had come and gone with a three issue adaptation at one point.  No one thought that would work as a comic. 

Everyone thought Red Sonja (which the previous publisher, Cross Plains Comics, canceled after their first issue) was the weakest of the Robert E. Howard characters, and we made it a best-selling title. 

And then there was the title that no one thought would work, The Lone Ranger.  It became one of our most critically acclaimed titles. 

The quality of these titles helped us convince Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson to allow us to publish The Boys, which every major publisher wanted to publish.  And it’s been great seeing great creators who began working with us go on to greatness, like Francesco Francavilla.  We’ve created unbelievably cool cross-overs with Marvel and DC, and have had a cross-over with all of the top five publishers.  We are the only publisher in Marvel's 75-year history that packaged comics for them to have their logo on the comics.  We’re (if not the only) one of the only publishers to publish both Flash Gordon AND Buck Rogers.  We are working with comics royalty:  the Jack Kirby Estate.  We got the license for The Shadow, for which there was a whole lot of competition.  And we took that and created the first major cross-over (heck, any cross-over) featuring all of the great pulp/masked characters for the first time in 80 years featuring The Shadow, Green Hornet, Miss Fury, The Black Bat, Zorro, The Spider and so many other characters.  It was truly a great experience.

Having our marketing plans and roll-outs from Project Superpowers and other lines replicated by other publishers is, as they say, the best form of flattery.  And speaking of which, we're going to have some nice announcements for our Super Powers line coming this summer.

We’ve created and acquired libraries - from the Vampirella library to Chaos! Comics, to creating the Superpowers library and building on the Kirby library.  I believe we have the third largest library of characters in the industry and I believe we have the third largest active library of characters owned by any single publisher.

Then there's so many series that are coming up.  Right now, we've launched the Gold Key line of characters to huge success thanks to the love of the characters (Turok/Magnus) and the creators involved, from Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente to Frank Barbiere and Mark Waid. 

We're giving the old school fans a treat with The Six Million Dollar Man:  Season Six.  We're going to bring back the entire Chaos! library of characters beginning in May, as well as creating comics with cross-over appeal such as the Pathfinder comics, working with J. Michael Straczynski on The Twilight Zone, creating an alternate steampunk universe entitled Legenderry for the Dynamite characters with Bill Willingham scripting.  Gail Simone was nominated for a YALSA Award for Red Sonja.  We’ve been working with up-and-coming creators and creators who deserve more attention, including Brandon Jerwa, Jai Nitz, Eric Trautman, Mark Rahner, Jim Zub, Jim Kuhoric, Brian Buccellato, Shannon Denton, and so many others.  We’ve worked with some of the most compelling writers in comics, from Andy Diggle and Kevin Smith to Mike Carey, Marc Guggenheim, Frank Miller, Jae Lee, Tim Bradstreet, Peter Milligan, Alex Ross, Steve Niles, Duane Swierczynski, James Robinson, Mark Waid, John Cassaday, Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, Jeff Parker and a multitude of other great creators.

We’re also excited about everything coming up.  We've announced we're working with Neil Gaiman, Alice Cooper and Michael Zulli to release the 20th Anniversary Edition of The Last Temptation, as well as the Alice Cooper series.

And speaking of 20th anniversary, we released The Art of Sean Phillips, which led to our signing The Art of Jock! and also Sean with Judith (Dupree) and Dean (Motter) are allowing us to release the 20th Anniversary Edition of Heart of the Beast.

And there's more to come.  We're going to be announcing a writer that will surprise many.  One of the most respected writers in comics who has virtually exclusively worked with Marvel and DC, and a little work with two other publishers (if I mention who, it will be guessed), and who will surprise everyone once we announce.  It will potentially polarize fans, retailers and the news sites.

And we haven't even touched on our announcements for Dynamite Toys and Games.  I cannot wait to announce our first one.  But it has to be ready before we can.
The last two years for San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic Con, we've surprised fans and our retailer partners with our announcements, and this year will continue to be bigger.

At the end of the day, I've been enjoying comics since I was 12, working in the business as a "weekend warrior" and in comics stores and packing boxes since I was 13.  This will be my 32nd year in this industry with only a two year break when I started college.  I get to wake up every morning, and there's always things that go right, things that go wrong, things that have to be adjusted, things that you get to enjoy because they are going well.

But no matter what, I have to say, I'm in comics, and I love what I do, and I do what I love.  And it gets better and better every day.

And, the best is yet to come.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
 
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